But whenever I am once again close to the waters of the Mississippi River, my pulse seems to adjust itself to the undulations of the river's waves. I have stood beneath the low, grand branches of ancient oaks and positioned myself just-so that I might receive a special benediction in the form of tangled spirals of silvery Spanish moss blown gently upon my cheek. Towering pecan trees and later, pine trees, stood as a sanctuary for me as an un-churched little girl, seeking God in the stillness of nature. Like Don Williams sang, "Those Williams boys, they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee..." Teenage angst was soothed for me by the whine and twang that came forth from spinning vinyl, punctuated by crying fiddles and the perfection of Leon McAulliffe on a steel guitar.
And I could twirl a baton.
Though I wanted to, I never took voice, tap, ballet, or piano, but when a lady showed up at Jackson Elementary and told parents she would teach girls to twirl baton, at a reasonable rate and immediately after school--which meant no driving to and from lessons--my mama signed me up. Oh, that lovely shiny baton, decorated with red electrical tape wrapped around each end, right below the white rubber tips. The red bands gave it a little extra pizzaz in spins and helped me identify mine amongst all the rest during class. It was girly and it was my first experience of belonging to something outside of my family or classroom. Between you and me, it was also a socially acceptable way to be a little "trashy." I understood Dolly Parton, who has commented in interviews that, as a child, she was always attracted to the flashy appearance of "trashy ladies." When you have a voice like an angel, you can dress as you like. For me, as a second grader, it was the appeal of having the blonde hair of Three's Company's Chrissy or Lucy's tight wardrobe on Dallas. At that time, I was a soul divided, torn between my noble heroines Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caddie Woodlawn, Anne Shirley, and my short-lived desire to one day become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. I devoured books during the daytime. At night, I pored over the beautiful homes and gardens in Mama's Country Living and Southern Living magazines, while I watched nighttime soap operas.
I looked forward to the weekly twirling classes with my pretty teacher. But the most exciting thing about baton classes was the promise that we would learn a routine and perform it at three local parades. In COSTUMES. Oh, when my little eyes first beheld the sample in all its gaudy, form-fitting glory. Cherry red satin, nice and shiny, with patches of pearlescent white sequins. It was a feast for the lesser nature of my senses. And my mama agreed to make one for me! Tacky finery was finally to be mine. Something like everyone else, instead of my usual smocked and swiss-dotted dresses, which until the end of first grade were accessorized with navy blue corrective shoes.
As if all of this was not overwhelming enough, though, we girls were shown the Optional Boots. They were a dream of footwear, bright white, with a tassel at the front of each. A tassel! I was so excited. After years of sensible corrective shoes, I was finally going to get boots. Then, mama explained to me what "optional" meant. It meant a frivolous extra amount of money that my thrifty mama, a Midwest farmer's daughter, was not going to spend. Other girls would get boots, but I got a trip to the shoe store for a pair of serviceable, perfectly reasonable and respectable, white canvas tennis shoes. I consoled myself, though, and enjoyed that the top half of me, at least, was flashy and shiny.
The near-by towns of Zachary and Baker held annual Christmas parades that were the usual southern small-town parades which make their way down a straight main street, with on-lookers gathered on either side. We were granted cool early December days, when holiday weather in Louisiana is usually a craps shoot. We arrived, bundled up in our coats, with our skinny legs exposed to the wind. Some of us had tassels which moved a little with each breeze. My own skinny legs were protected somewhat by sensible knee socks. The disappointment of footwear completely disappeared in the excitement, though, as we formed neat rows, along with our teachers' students from other schools. We all wore costumes cut from the same pattern, each made in the colors of our schools. Everyone had hair up, in either a bun or a pony tail and we stood, ready, with our batons in position at our sides. We would march, knees raised high with each step. Every so often, we would stop, perform our routine, and then take up our marching again, swinging our right hands as we held our batons, and holding our left hands on our hips. A flashy pose indeed. Knee socks and all, it was magical and though I shivered most of the ride home, I was lit with a satisfied glow from within.
Then came our own town's parade. You know how people will say they are from a one-traffic-light town? Well, we didn't even have one. People from a neighboring town would joke that it was because we couldn't agree on what color we wanted it. There was a main street, lined with only a few office buildings and businesses, including the Bank of Jackson, Jr. Food Mart, where you went for fried chicken, and Bobby's Drive-In, the establishment which is still my ideal--and benchmark-- for a dive, with its hamburgers that dripped down your arm and thick, icy milk shakes. Some people lined that street to view the parade, but a large number of people chose to watch the parade along the second half of its route. Our Christmas parade, like our Homecoming parade, not only marched through the center of town, but also, wound its way through the grounds of our town's unofficial downtown, East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, called "East" by us locals.
The hospital opened in 1848 as an insane asylum. Its campus is made up of beautiful Greek revival buildings, one of which boasts an elaborately detailed ballroom. The hospital was noted at the time for its more humane and respectful treatment of patients, compared to most mental hospitals of the period. Many of my classmates had relatives who worked at the hospital and at one time, during the height of debate about state governmental waste in the 1980s, it was said that there were three employees to every patient at East. In Louisiana, the phrase, "going to Jackson" was synonymous with commitment at East. So, it was not uncommon for locals to describe themselves as being from "north of Baton Rouge" or just from "the Felicianas", in order to avoid any possible confusion. My devotion to Flannery O' Connor only grew when I learned that her hometown, Milledgeville, Georgia, was also the home of a mental hospital and "going to Milledgeville" held the same meaning as "going to Jackson." The Jackson hospital is still in operation, along with other state facilities in the town: Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI), Villa Feliciana State Geriatric Hospital and the Louisiana War Veterans Home. We were always a campaign stump-stop for gubernatorial elections, with speeches tailored to the concerns of state workers. Until I twirled baton in the Jackson Christmas Parade, my only experience of East was passing its gates every time I entered the town. I always craned my neck to see the uniformed guards in the guard shack. DCI was also on our route, so guard shacks and towers were a fixture of the landscape in my childhood drives.
Again, the heavens granted us all a cool, crisp day for a Christmas parade. We arrived early, with Mama's best friend, and her daughter Janie. There was the extra treat of hot chocolate that day, which I suppose meant that hot chocolate was sold at a lower price in Jackson than Baker or Zachary. There was the same excitement of the crowd, the beautiful costumes, the shiny batons as we took our places in our neat rows. Soon, the parade started and we marched in time to Christmas tunes played by the high school marching band. My enthusiasm for Christmas, belonging to a group and tacky clothing, increased with each marching step as the crowd clapped for us and I recognized more familiar faces than I had seen in the previous two parades.
Then, we entered the grounds of East. There was still a crowd on either side of the paved street, the band still played its tunes and our feet were still lifting in step, but the festive atmosphere of just a few minutes earlier was gone and replaced by a momentary hush. I looked at the faces on either side of the street and then I looked at my fellow baton-twirlers. Wide-eyes met with wide-eyes. The familiar crowd of typical parade-goers was now dotted with faces unlike any I had seen before. Hospital gowns hung unevenly under the hems of ill-fitting coats, along with slippers and robes on some people. I heard wails and shrieks. I saw a straight jacket for the first time. Next to each face that was a revelation to me, was the face of someone who was attired in the uniform of a nurse or doctor. Sometimes, they were supportive, bearing a kindly expression, pointing at the parade and encouraging glee in their special charges. Other times, I caught expressions that to me were mean and aggravated, faces which seemed much more out of place than the contorted or gaping ones. My thoughts and emotions were more than a seven-year-old baton twirler could bear, and as I tried to blink away the tears, I lost step with my group.
I noticed that not everyone was a patient or care-giver. I spotted the faces of friends and their parents. The same lawn chairs, brought from home, lined this part of the route and I realized that many locals made up the crowd. A blend of the seemingly sane, the certifiably insane, and those whose designation was less official. Years later, I would remember this combination, so weird to my childish senses, when I watched an episode of Designing Women and heard the character, Julia Sugarbaker, explain, "I'm saying this is the South and we're proud of our crazy people. We don't hide them up in the attic. We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off. You see, in the south no one ever asks if you have crazy people in your family. They just ask what side they're on."
That day, on the grounds of East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, I started to form my ideas of what it meant to really belong. I learned a little bit about being southern and a bit more about what it meant to be human. Those first images of the patients, the kindly workers, and those not so kind have always stayed with me. In the years which followed, I would usually take part in the local parades as an observer. Later, in high school, I was once again a participant, riding on various floats or cars, as President of Students Against Drunk Driving or Student Government. I remembered that early Christmas parade and held my breath as the wheels beneath me began to roll through the entrance at East. Each time, I braced myself for the unique crowd and saw some of the same sights as before. This time, sitting, rather than keeping step as a marcher, I could really pause and observe. I tried to remember to throw candy, but I would get lost in the humanity. Those faces, the postures: joy, untainted and sometimes, a sad confusion.
In my final parade, I sat on the trunk of a Mustang convertible, with my white-pump-clad feet on the seat below. Mama drove, so I was chaperoned and therefore, apart from my peers' full experience of Homecoming. There would be no date to a dance allowed afterward, so I was trying to soak it all in while I could. But once again, the people on the sides of the car took over my thoughts and I looked around, trying to smile warmly. I stopped throwing candy, lost in it all, until, toward the end of the route, I heard voices, which I realized were male, and slightly angry, reminding me to throw some candy. I turned in the direction of the voices and saw the people standing there, clad in their issued orange uniforms. A high fence stood between them and me. I had heard talk from classmates whose relatives worked at "Forensic," the special unit on the grounds of East, for those tried criminals deemed insane. So, I came out of my thoughts and just started throwing fistfuls of candy. I sat on that convertible, in my pink dress, sensible for school assemblies, but unlike the cocktail dresses of every other girl in the parade. Yes, these men had committed crimes, but they were certifiably insane. As hard as I could, from my own perch, I was throwing them candy, attempting to get it through the holes and even over the fence. Maybe I threw because they were yelling at me to do so. Maybe I threw because they sounded mad. Maybe I threw because they were behind that fence, topped with its razor-wire that was so much sharper than the barbed-wire of our farm fences at home. Sharp as a chaperone's watchful eye.
The packaged south, the poor caricature peddled by so many, is not the south to which I belong. It is to the land-- with its humidity, red clay, fertile river dirt, incessant insects of wearying variety and fertility, and winding rivers which make for exasperating city maps-- that I belong. It is to the music, literature, and food of the south to which I belong, but more than that, to God, present and worshipped in the landscape's many steeples of various creeds, He who made the creative bodies and minds who produce that which feeds our bodies and spirits. That land delights, confuses, angers, soothes, and frees, and sometimes, traps me, as does its people. It is all a mixed bag. We humans, we inhabitants of this earth, are all a mixed bag. It's okay to acknowledge that. It's okay to feel initial shock or even horror. But then, we have to bring ourselves out and back into it all. We recognize bits of ourselves in those faces. And we stretch, we strain, sometimes, without explanation, to share--to give--something of ourselves to our fellow man. Our lesser nature, our baser instincts, slowly begin to recede. Our more noble ones are fed by the action.
In those moments of recognition, our face in the face of others, slowly, a little girl's knee socks take on less importance. A teenager realizes being set apart is not complete or inescapable. A woman finds God, in spite of the example of some of His people and in spite of herself. A woman prays for the desire to fit in, to belong, not to this land and realm, but to another. A prayer begins to form around a desire to shine, to attract, not attention to herself, but to the One who is always present, in the faces of the "freaks" and especially, in those of their kindly care-takers.
And I can still twirl a baton.
|(that's me, all shiny, on the left)|
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. --Flannery O' Connor